Official weather information is scant across the Plains states in 1880-81, as most settlements were newly established and had not begun keeping official weather records. There were, however, a few official observations in the region, including those in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Omaha, Des Moines, Yankton, and several military fort locations in eastern South Dakota. Using these observations, as well as unofficial weather documentation from historical records, it is possible to not only characterize the severity of the Hard Winter but to determine more specifically the intensity of that winter relative to the period of record. The available weather records can be used to place the Hard Winter into perspective, looking at factors such as temperature, amount of precipitation, number of snow days, and wind information. By looking at the combination of factors, the severity of the Hard Winter can be compared to other winters that have weather records, with the potential to look for comparable winters as well as to determine if the winter of 1880-81 was indeed one of the worst on record in the region.
In looking at weather records, this study will be able to determine the extent of literary license in The Long Winter, and conversely, the weather facts of that winter. It serves as a demonstration of the use and application of historical weather data to place a season in climatological context, as well as the use of storytelling to convey that information to an audience that does not specialize in weather and climate, including teachers, librarians, school age children, historians, and authors.